The Learning Organization

A learning organization is one that:

At the heart of a learning organization lies the belief that enormous human potential lies locked and undeveloped in our organizations. Central to this belief is the conviction that when all members of an organization fully develop and exercise their essential human capacities, the resulting congruence between personal and organizational visions, goals and objectives will release this potential.

Peter M. Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of a Learning Organization, contains one of the best descriptions of a learning organization — one that is structured in a manner consistent with the essence(s) of human nature. Senge is concerned with what he calls the higher human essences, and believes that learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human.

Senge describes five disciplines that must be mastered at all levels of the organization:

1. Personal mastery - clarifying one's personal vision, focusing energy, and seeing reality

2. Shared vision - transforming individual vision into a shared vision

3. Mental models - unearthing internal pictures or models and understanding how they shape actions

4. Team learning - suspending judgments and creating dialogue

5. Systems thinking - fusing the four learning disciplines so the one sees the whole picture, rather than the parts

Real learning is not just limited to understanding what is necessary to survive (adaptive learning), but also includes what he calls “generative learning” — learning that expands a human being's capacity to create the results he or she truly desires.

Although learning may be a fundamental human essence, the process of learning is quite complex. Learning itself includes three different activities: thinking, communicating and cooperating. When our capacities to think, communicate and cooperate are enhanced, so is our ability to learn. Thus, a learning organization is one which fosters and enhances these activities for its members and members of the community in which it exists.

Traditional organizations change by reacting to events. Their reference points are external and often based in the past or on the competition. They are often change-averse.

Learning organizations, by contrast, are vision-led and creative. Their reference points are internal and anchored in the future they intend to create. They embrace change, rather than merely react to it, because they see it as a way to learn and grow

Why should organizations care about learning? Because, the level of performance and improvement needed in today's ever-changing environment requires learning . . . lots of learning. In most industries and government, there is no clear path to success and no clear path to follow. As noted in the video below, competitors can quickly copy products, services, and processes, thus an organization that learns faster than its competitors has the upper advantage:

Traditional organizations sort people into “thinkers” and “doers.” Essentially, the doers are prohibited from thinking. Learning organizations truly engage everyone. Their fundamental challenge is seen as tapping the intellectual capacity of people at all levels, both as individuals and as groups.

Next Steps

Take the Learning Organization Profile survey

Next chapter: Mentoring

Main Leadership Menu


Senge, P.M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of a Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.